When Mary Rizzo, Associate Director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, solicited the hospitals that participate in the “Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care,” a program offered by the Council, about hosting a CavanKerry Press poet-led workshop in April for National Poetry Month, Cooper University Hospital in Camden was the first to respond. Though worried about my ability to get first year internal medicine residents, who are required to participate in the Lit and Med program, to be the least bit enthused about poetry, I immediately offered to teach it.
I was heartened by an enthusiastic e-mail from Doctor Vijay Rajput, who among many other hats, is the Program Director for the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s Internal Medicine Residency, which is based at Cooper: “We are looking forward to a great session with you.” Okay, so there would be at least one person in the room rooting for me!
But what shape would the workshop take? I’m not a proponent of poetry workshops that dumb down poetry in order to make it palatable for those who view it as either an incomprehensible puzzle or, worse, as the cod-liver oil of literature. I am a proponent of workshops that reveal to the participants the force poetry can have in their lives (to paraphrase a blurb for The Poetry Life by Baron Wormser). In short, I want people to leave the workshop with their hearts open to poetry. Thus I tailor, as much as possible, my comments, the poems used as examples and the writing exercises to the expected audience. In this case I had to figure out what force poetry could be in the lives of doctors.
Think about it: Doctors have conversations with us at the most vulnerable times in our lives: when either we, or our loved ones, are ill. At these times we are filled with fear, pain, confusion, sadness or anger. But doctors are trained to focus on gathering facts and to stick to discussing symptoms and test results. They are also trained to squelch their emotional responses to a patient or a medical situation. They are not trained how to listen to, and respond to, the ever-present, deeper, emotional layers of their conversations with patients. They are not trained to acknowledge and explore their own emotional responses to the conversations they have with patients and caregivers.
As it turns out, poetry is also a multi-layered conversation that we participate in as either listeners (i.e. by reading poems or by listening to a reading of poems) or speakers (i.e. by writing poems or by reading poems out loud). In either case, to fully understand what’s being said, we must pay attention to the concurrent multiple layers: what’s directly stated, what’s implicitly stated, what’s unstated and hidden but crucial to the poem’s, or the person’s, meaning. Thus, the complexity of a poem mirrors the complexity of a patient/doctor or caregiver/doctor conversation. Aha! That’s the force poetry could be in their lives. Learning how to participate in the conversation of a poem could help the residents 1. Expand their understanding of their patients and their patients’ caregivers 2. Articulate their experiences, particularly their emotional experiences, as medical professionals.
With this in mind, I opened the workshop by asking, “Who reads poetry?” Three hands, including mine, went up. “Who writes poetry?” Two hands, including mine, went up. “Who was taught that you have to know what a poem means the minute you finish reading it?” Many hands, including mine, went up. I expressed how harmful that approach can be to one’s appreciation of poetry and offered an alternative way of approaching it: as a conversation that began with the first poem ever written and that will end with the last poem ever written. My words were met with blank stares on the tired faces of fifteen residents who had worked hard all day and really just wanted to get through the next ninety minutes as quickly as possible. It would be an understatement to say that there was very little energy in the room. Yikes. Was I in over my head? I shrugged off the blank looks and asked them to listen to “The barking boy” from Elegy for the Floater. Afterwards I talked about what is stated directly in that poem—e.g., the details of my brother’s suicide—and what is implied in that poem—e.g., my fear of being crazy like my brother. Some faces began to show a little interest. My panic subsided. After an ice-breaking list poem exercise, I congratulated them on having participated as both listeners and speakers in the poetry conversation—the first time for all but two of them. The energy level rose a few degrees.
Next I read “Autopsy Report,” also from Elegy, and talked about the “unstated and hidden” layers in it. For example, completely unstated but very present in the poem are questions that I never had the chance to ask the Medical Examiner: “Was it a quick death? Did he suffer? Was there anything anyone could have done?” This was the first time I ever “showed” these layers to anyone but it seemed crucial for me to step into unknown, scary territory if I was going to ask the same of them. Afterwards, I could sense a significant change in the attention being given to what I was saying.
So, I jumped to a much more challenging writing exercise based on the poem “Diagnosis: Leukemia,” from Life with Sam by Elizabeth Hall Hutner, in which she describes her 5-year old son Sam’s symptoms. I handed out copies of a three-column table. As I read aloud each of five symptoms listed in that poem, I asked them to write their responses to it as a doctor seeing Elizabeth and Sam for the first time (Column 1), as Elizabeth (Column 2), and as a human being (Column 4). Afterwards, a few brave residents shared their “poems” with us. The differences between their responses, based on what role they were playing, was eye opening to every one in the room. Suddenly the room was abuzz with conversation. They talked about how easy it was to write Column 1, difficult to write Column 2 and even more difficult to write Column 3. One was reluctant to read his Column 3 because he had a “bad” feeling toward the mother. I nearly danced around the room when his “bad” feeling triggered a discussion about the difficulty of dealing with “bad” personal feelings in a medical setting. By this point in the workshop I realized a third way in which poetry could help the residents: they had the opportunity to articulate their emotional experiences to each other.
I don’t claim to have made poetry converts out of the Cooper residents but, at the end of the workshop, everyone’s hand shot up when I asked, “Who has written a poem?” Maybe, just maybe, their hearts had been opened a little to poetry.